Dystopia in miniature!
February 13, 2010 11:40 PM   Subscribe

What sci-fi novels feature small community habitats which are the petri dishes of social/political experimentation? By "habitat" I mean a structure or ship that's totally isolated and self-sufficient. Dystopia in miniature!

I'm looking for books that have the same sort of situation as Bioshock's Rapture, Fallout's Vaultec Vaults, The City of Ember, or Cptn. Nemo's Nautilus. Anything that's about a very specific and unique place where things are being done differently...

I guess movies and video games and comics are welcome, too, but I'm specifically interested in literature.

posted by cowbellemoo to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
There's a whole sub-genre of generation starship stories that are usually about such isolated communities. Heinlein's "Universe" (usually published today with its sequel as Orphans of the Sky) is the granddaddy of this type of story.
posted by The Tensor at 12:21 AM on February 14, 2010

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun series and Frank Herbert's Destination: Void and its sequels.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:21 AM on February 14, 2010

Here's a bunch of examples that come to mind:

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke -- a far-future domed city of people who believe themselves to be the last surviving humans, with a conditioned terror of the outside world.

The Inverted World by Christopher Priest -- a city built on tracks so it can steadily follow a moving point called the "optimum", whose nature becomes clearer towards the end of the book.

Starburst by Fredrik Pohl involves a team of brilliant scientists sent on an expedition to colonize a planet of Alpha Centauri. It's revealed early on that the planet is a hoax, and the sole purpose of the mission is to put a bunch of geniuses in a distraction-free environment and see what advances in knowledge they come up with.

The backstory of the Myst series of puzzle games features an isolated, now-extinct technological civilization living in a huge underground cavern in New Mexico. The details are only hinted at in the earlier games, but are central to the plot of Uru (the canceled-but-kinda-resurrected MMORPG) and the tie-in novels.

This is stretching the limits of "small community", but it's definitely sociopolitical: in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed an exiled faction of anarcho-syndicalists have colonized their planet's arid but habitable moon. They've been living there for about 200 years when the events of the book take place, and engage in a limited amount of trade with the home planet, but don't allow visitors of any kind.

"Crushed Underground" (part of the web sci-fi series Fine Structure) might have a bit of what you're looking for, but it's very short.

More broadly, there are any number of examples of the "generation ship" concept; for instance, there's the Star Trek TOS episode "For The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched The Sky", Isaac Asimov's Nemesis and Le Guin's "The Birthday of the World". Depending on how metaphorical/symbolic you want to get, there are also some classic short stories that might fit your description, such as "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and "The Lottery".
posted by teraflop at 12:26 AM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nancy Kress: In an Alien Light?
posted by Omnomnom at 12:28 AM on February 14, 2010

The Maths of Neal Stephenson's Anathem sound like they might fit that bill. Basically academic monasteries that are designed to withstand repeated collapses of civilization.
posted by ZeroDivides at 12:30 AM on February 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke, but you should read the preceding three Rama books which don't really fit the theme you're looking for though.
posted by PenDevil at 1:37 AM on February 14, 2010

Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress?
posted by sundri at 2:11 AM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert is about a crowded, isolated city.

Todos Santos in Oath of Fealty (Niven/Pournelle) is also an essentially enclosed city.
posted by Gorgik at 4:01 AM on February 14, 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson, MARS TRILOGY.
posted by meadowlark lime at 4:25 AM on February 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss might suit.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:30 AM on February 14, 2010

The first part of Chris Ware's (comic-book) Acme Novelty Library no. 19 is an amazing piece called 'The Seeing-Eye Dogs of Mars'. Supposedly from a 50s sf magazine, it's the story of a tiny Mars colony consisting of two married couples and some dogs, told by the last survivor (not counting one of the dogs) who is a very, very unreliable narrator.

This, it turns out, is all within a framing narrative about the 'author' of the piece. But by itself, it's exactly the sort of thing you're after. Amazon.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:59 AM on February 14, 2010

Starfish by Peter Watts fits the bill, I think. Amazon link if you like paper copies, or read online here, CC licence: starfish.
posted by handee at 5:12 AM on February 14, 2010

Orphans of the Sky

Seconding the Mars Trilogy, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel with dystopian themes.

Fun question.
posted by mearls at 5:28 AM on February 14, 2010

I've always found BF Skinner's Walden Two to be a rather enticing alternative "habitat"...
posted by fairmettle at 6:01 AM on February 14, 2010

House of Stairs, William Sleator
posted by katopotato at 6:08 AM on February 14, 2010

Philip K. Dick's A Maze of Death
posted by wobh at 6:54 AM on February 14, 2010

Glasshouse by Charlie Stross is a book about pretty much exactly this.

Thirding the Mars trilogy, also.
posted by Adridne at 7:12 AM on February 14, 2010

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote one in the '80s called 'Oath of Fealty' about a giant cube of a city (Todos Santos) set up just outside of a dystopian Los Angeles. The city was organized with a different kind of government and policing, as an attempt to counter/solve the societal problems of the day. It was a pretty good read, and had a fair bit about social issues. Todos Santos itself becomes a dystopia pretty soon, as I recall.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:23 AM on February 14, 2010

You've got to check out Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels. The Glitter Band is a collection of approximately ten thousand orbitals doing exactly what you describe, with less than pleasant results even before it all officially goes to hell.
posted by valkyryn at 7:42 AM on February 14, 2010

Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke

Meaning no offense, but that's by Arthur Clarke and Gentry Lee, and friends don't let friends read Gentry Lee. If you come across this novel (or Rama 2 or Garden of Rama), you should burn them, churn their ashes into an unreconstructable mush, and scatter them to the four winds, all while blindfolded to protect against reading any of them. They are truly excrescences.

They're worlds, not constructs, but Hamilton's Night's Dawn and wormhole-company universes have lots of low-population worlds, many of which are little social experiments.

The background of Varley's Gaea universe is like this, but you don't see much of it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:48 AM on February 14, 2010

Speaking of Stross, you may be interested in a a piece he wrote about this and the resulting comments.
posted by Jorus at 8:47 AM on February 14, 2010

There was a brilliant novel I read a while ago that...hmm...let me check my library because it's been bugging me that I can't remember its name. Ah hah! Ring, by Stephen Baxter is a very dense hard sci-fi epic story that has a very detailed microcosm starship.

Joe Haldeman is a fan of that subgenre. Several of his books describe small spaceship cultures. Check out Old Twentieth, Marsbound, and Forever Free (sequel to Forever War).
posted by carlh at 8:49 AM on February 14, 2010

Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick pretty much has exactly what you describe as a premise, and follows one closed-system habitat modeled on traditional Kenyan culture. It's different than many other members of the same genre.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:02 AM on February 14, 2010

Microcosmic God is a short story by Theodore Sturgeon. It's an example (maybe the best) of a self-contained culture created by scientist so he can observe and utilize the inhabitants' technological advances.
posted by Rash at 9:07 AM on February 14, 2010

It also occurs to me that a significant part of A Boy and His Dog (story and/or movie) takes place in an enclosed city/society.
posted by Gorgik at 9:12 AM on February 14, 2010

The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn has your isolated miniature dystopia all wrapped up. Once a magsail luxury liner, now reduced to fusion-drive tramp freighter, the River of Stars is damaged in a freak accident. Beyond reach of rescue, her dysfunctional crew can't see past their differences to save their own necks, apparently. The book is a neat blend of hard sci-fi, character studies, and fatalism.
posted by Quietgal at 9:21 AM on February 14, 2010

Oops, forgot to address the part about "petri dishes": while the ship is not primarily a sociological experiment, the captain selected his crew based on his own ideas of how to set up an effective team.
posted by Quietgal at 9:26 AM on February 14, 2010

I'd be remiss to not mention Sandkings.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:32 AM on February 14, 2010

Scott Westerfield's Uglies series is set in isolated small cities after an ecological apocolypse, each with its own method of social control.

And of course there's Logan's Run.
posted by nicwolff at 9:33 AM on February 14, 2010

Pamela Sargent's Earthseed, and its recent sequel, Farseed, are good examples of this. Both very dark YA novels, the first explores a ship where a limited population of genetically engineered teenagers are being readied and trained to colonize a planet. In the second, she explores the difficulties the young population faces on their new home.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:38 AM on February 14, 2010

Damon Knight's The World and Thorinn - the whole planet's been divided up into thousands of experimental cultures, and the protagonist explores a few of them.
posted by moonmilk at 9:46 AM on February 14, 2010

Eric Van Lustbader wrote a novel called The Sunset Warrior about a small society living in a sealed environment that was coming apart. I don't recall it being particularly great, but it held my attention when I was a kid. (I think I even read it twice.) What I was never able to do was to read the rest of the series of which it's a part, but I think that they don't take place in the same environment.
posted by OmieWise at 9:50 AM on February 14, 2010

Surprised no one has posted this -- Margaret Atwood's recent novel The Year of the Flood features a cult group called The Gardeners, with leader figures called Adams and Eves. They are not 100% isolated but interact with the outside world very little. It's a great read and definitely fits your dystopian category.
posted by fantine at 9:59 AM on February 14, 2010

Her style is not for everyone, but Tanith Lee's Biting the Sun fits your definition.
posted by gudrun at 11:19 AM on February 14, 2010

Response by poster: Oh wow, I'm overwhelmed by the response. Thanks to all of you.
posted by cowbellemoo at 11:27 AM on February 14, 2010

Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan! Set in some North American city (at different times implied to be NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, or possibly all of them- The City is very, very large) an indeterminate number of years in the future. The City maintains a number of "reservations" for extinct cultures (the Mayans, the Republican Party, you get the idea), as well as one reservation set aside for cultural and technological experimentation, where all legal and ethical restrictions on technology are not enforced. Kids are genetically engineered to adapt to a zero-gravity environment, the news is sprayed into the hour in chemical form every few minutes (with only a slight risk of catastrophic brain damage), etc.
posted by Merzbau at 11:45 AM on February 14, 2010

It is not quite what you are looking for, but it is very much parallel: Clans of the Alphane Moon
posted by rr at 12:32 PM on February 14, 2010

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald, sort of a dark precursor to Fallout's Vaultec Vaults: government and military officials living in the deepest level of a government shelter after World War III.
posted by castlebravo at 1:06 PM on February 14, 2010

Heinlein's Tunnel In The Sky
posted by fso at 2:48 PM on February 14, 2010

You might like Stephen Kings's new book 'Under the Dome'
"On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester's Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. "
posted by Tenuki at 3:41 PM on February 14, 2010

Seconding "Glasshouse." Pretty much exactly what you describe.
posted by Thistledown at 8:55 PM on February 14, 2010

Oh I just thought of this one, it's a bit off the mark but might be of interest: Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon follows its confused protagonist through a variety of enclaves, each its own reality and the accidental creation of the dreams of a powerful psychic. Kind of like The Lathe of Heaven except with multiple regionally dominant dreamers.
posted by nicwolff at 10:34 PM on February 14, 2010

Worldshaker by an Australian author is a YA novel about a ship that moves around the world. It has dystopian-like Victorian era overtones (Queen Victoria is a character after all), and there lives another group of people in the power centre called Filthies. Wonderfully engaging and atmospheric, and rather intelligent for the average YA novel.
posted by chronic sublime at 2:32 AM on February 15, 2010

Larry Niven's "Integral Trees" might interest you. It and his "Ringworld" books are all about awfully huge but sparsely inhabited places.

And Greg Bear has abook set in a hollow asteroid ("Eon," maybe) that could fit the bill.

And there's always the Thomas Covenant fantasy series written by Stephen R. Donaldson: isolated inasmuchas I remember them turning out to be "ALL A DREAM" or something.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:12 AM on February 15, 2010

Ernest Callenbach's "Ecotopia", in which the Northwestern United States separate from the Union to form an independent, green-living, ecological and social utopia (I don't recall dystopian elements, however).
posted by illenion at 1:55 AM on February 16, 2010

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